Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland professor Paul Ewart forced to quit Oxford post wins ageism case

Paul Ewart was Oxford’s head of atomic and laser physics
Paul Ewart was Oxford’s head of atomic and laser physics
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

A Belfast-born physics professor has won a landmark ageism case after being forced to retire from Oxford University.

Paul Ewart (71) was forced to leave his post as Oxford's head of atomic and laser physics before his 70th birthday.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that "a scientist's best work can come at any age" and that he felt vindicated in his fight against Oxford's "ageist" retirement rules.

It's expected that the university will now be under pressure to roll back on a controversial policy allowing them to dismiss academics at the age of 67 to make way for younger and more diverse staff.

Only Cambridge University and St Andrews University also adopt this rule.

Professor Ewart said he agreed there needed to be more diversity and opportunities for young people at Oxford, but discriminating against older staff was not the right way to do it.

He is now set to receive at least £150,000 in back pay and hopes to be reinstated, having spent £30,000 of his own money on the case.

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This included £5,000 on obtaining university statistics showing the retirement policy had a "trivial" success rate.

"People should be allowed the dignity of continued employment if they're continuing to work as well as anyone else," he said.

"There's a kind of underlying ageist principle that somehow older people can't come up with original ideas and there's no evidence for that at all.

"In fact, some studies show that a scientist's best work can come at any time in their career.

"So it's a kind of underlying prejudice there that needs to be challenged," he added.

Professor Ewart originally earned his doctorate at Queen's University Belfast before moving to Imperial College and then spending 40 years at Oxford.

He had initially applied for a retirement extension of three years, but was only offered two which he said was not adequate to complete the work.

Denied the means to employ a research team, he has continued limited research by himself and published two undergraduate textbooks.

He called the decision of the employment tribunal "very satisfying" and hoped it would help other colleagues.

"That's what kept me going, that it wasn't just for me. If it was I could have settled a long time ago but it was an important issue of principle here," he said.

"Often I think institutions and systems are difficult to change because people within them are loathe to rock the boat.

"Once a policy has been adopted it's very difficult for people within a system to admit a mistake has been made.

"I'm hopeful when the university looks at the detailed judgment that it makes sense and that they ought to modify their retirement policy accordingly."

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